The Doobie Brothers: Born With it in Their Souls

Been wanting to write about this band for a while.  They recently began their 50th anniversary tour—postponed a year due to COVID—so it’s a good time to finally put pen to paper.

During the Doobies’ heyday when I was in high school and college, I liked them, but not enormously so.  Their music rang from AM and FM dials so often, and they appeared so frequently on TV shows like Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, there was no need for me to spend money on their records.  I was also a rock music snob (even more so than today).  Oversaturation and commercial success had the little snob creature inside my ears forewarning me, “Nooo, Pete!  This band is too commercial!  Not dark enough.  Not hip enough for you.”

My rock music palette then was headed by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Robin Trower, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Roxy Music, King Crimson, Velvet Underground, and so on.  Heavy shit, man.

But time and tide have plastered a thin layer of duct tape over the snob creature’s mouth.  Like with Petticoat Junction, I take scant heed of relevancy, image, the charts, my peers’ judgment, or the opinions of critics like Robert Christgau.  As my WordPress compatriot Cincinnati Babyhead would say, their music takes me.  It grabs me.  And that’s what matters.  Remember the days when melody, harmony, musicianship, lyrics, and good vibes meant something?

Like the band Genesis, there are two eras in the Doobie Brothers’ history.  The first era was dominated by guitarist Tom Johnston, and the second by keyboardist Michael McDonald.  The cement that held both of them together was finger-style guitarist Patrick Simmons, the only member who’s been with the band its entire ride.  All three of these blokes are top-notch singers, songwriters, and musicians.  Now, really.  How many groups can boast that?

The Johnston period was characterized by pumping “chunka-chunka” guitar-based songs, whereas McDonald brought a smoother, blue-eyed soul sound to the group.  Both eras have their adherents.  While I prefer the Johnston era, there are a lot of McDonald-era songs I love as well.

The Doobies formed in San Jose, California in 1970.  Influenced by Haight-Ashbury legends Moby Grape, they started out as a foursome: Johnston, Simmons, drummer John Hartman, and bassist Dave Shogren.  Their big audience at the start were local bikers, and they took their name from a comment by a friend: “You guys smoke so much dope, you should call yourselves The Doobie Brothers.”  Laughter all around the hazy living room.  But the name stuck. 

Their self-titled debut album (1971) had some decent songs, especially “Nobody,” but the engineering and production were muffed, and the LP is all but forgotten today.  Shogren then quit, and the other three brought in two guys: bassist Tiran Porter and second drummer Michael Hossack.  This five-piece was taken under the wing of fledgling Warner Bros. producer Ted Templeman, who’d been with the minor West Coast group Harpers Bizarre.

Producer Ted Templeman

Toulouse Street (1972) was a major improvement over the debut, propelled by “Listen to the Music,” “Rockin’ Down the Highway,” “Jesus is Just Alright,” and one of my personal fave Doobies tunes, Simmons’ spooky “Toulouse Street.”  The band burned through the record charts and never looked back.

The next three Doobies albums continued the hit parade and seemed to get better and better: The Captain And Me (1973), What Were Once Vices Are Now Habits (1974), and arguably their artistic high point, Stampede (1975).  By the time of Stampede, drummer Hossack had been replaced by Keith Knudsen.  Also joining was ex-Steely Dan flash guitarist Jeff Baxter.

Around this time co-leader Johnston was getting burned out, and was suffering from a severe stomach ulcer.  Baxter recommended keyboardist Michael McDonald, whom he knew from the Dan, as a possible reinforcement.  Simmons heard McDonald sing.  His jaw dropped.  He then practically begged a wary Templeman to give him an audition. When Templeman finally heard McDonald sing an abbreviated version of “Takin’ it to The Streets,” his jaw dropped.  Both guys realized they had a chance to nab a Ray Charles-styled vocalist.  The fact he could also write hit songs was an accidental bonus.

McDonald and Simmons steered the band through the final four Doobies albums: Takin’ It To The Streets (1976), Livin’ On The Fault Line (1977), Minute By Minute (1978), and One Step Closer (1980).  While Tom Johnston had been the lynchpin of the Doobies sound early on, and written and sung most of their biggest songs, by the time of Fault Line he was pretty much in the shadows.  He officially left in ‘77.  The band then hit a commercial zenith with the thrice-platinum album Minute By Minute. But it was becoming slicker with each record, straying ever-closer to homogenous L.A. territory and further from its earthier Northern California roots.

Simmons realized how far the Doobies had drifted.  One night in ‘81 he called McDonald to say he was leaving the group that he’d begun with Johnston, that the music just wasn’t the same.  McDonald, being the decent man that he is, completely empathized with Simmons.  After only one rehearsal without Simmons, he and the others decided to retire the band.

But you can’t keep a good band down.  The Doobies did a Vietnam vets charity concert in 1987, which stimulated more get-togethers, and they haven’t stopped touring since 1993.  They’ve released six more albums since One Step Closer, including this year’s Liberté.  The core of the band today is Johnston, Simmons, and multi-instrumentalist John McFee, who joined in 1979 (see header photo).

The Doobies in 1977. L to R: Knudsen, Hartman, Johnston, Baxter, Simmons, McDonald, Porter

I had the good fortune of seeing the Doobies live in 1978, right when Minute By Minute was climbing the charts.  It was at my alma mater, Ohio University (no, not The Ohio State University).  They actually performed in my dormitory.  Seriously.  Our rooms were on the perimeter of a large circular assembly center that housed the basketball and graduation arena.  Although I didn’t have a ticket, a small group of us gathered in a darkened stairwell and broke through a locked door, then quickly blended with the crowd.  (I don’t advocate breaking and entering as a hobby.  But, shit.  With the fact that my digs were hosting the band?  And the money my parents and I were spending?)

Anyway, my two big memories were Simmons and Baxter sitting side-by-side on the edge of the stage, rocking and trading guitar licks; and the song “It Keeps You Runnin’” (from the Takin’ It album), with its hypnotic chorus…which altered my consciousness even more than it was already altered.  I was a Doobies convert that night.

By the way, the 50th Anniversary Tour will include not only Simmons and Johnston, but also McDonald and Little Feat ivory wizard Bill Payne.  Here’s the leadoff track from Stampede, the Simmons (music) and Johnston (lyrics) collaboration “Sweet Maxine,” which exemplifies the sound of early Doobies.  If this don’t get you either bopping or air-guitaring…well, you just weren’t born with it in your soul.

Mahalo, Maui!

waianapanapa

Anyone have experience with GoFundMe pages? My wife and I would like to start one to raise money for a retirement in Hawai’i.

Our daughter, Holly, honeymooned in Maui, one of Hawai’i’s eight magical islands, several years ago. Not to be outdone, we visited for two weeks in early December, our first trip to America’s 50th state. Well, Hawai’i captured our money, but also our hearts. The balmy weather and breathtaking flora and fauna are legendary, but there’s also an Aloha factor. I’ll discuss Aloha at the end. First, here are some trip highlights:

Kamaole II beach

Kamaole II Beach, with distant West Maui

With Holly’s guidance, we rented a one-bedroom condo in Kamaole (pronounced “Comma-OH-lay”) on the South Shore of Maui. The location was ideal: the leeward, sunny side of the isle, just north of the posh resorts of Wailua, just south of the shopping and nightlife of Kihei (“KEY-hay”), and it encompasses three golden-sand beaches (Kam I, II, and III).

Lahaina is a bustling harbor town in West Maui, and preceded Honolulu as the first capital of Hawai’i. Before our trip, I read a history of Hawai’i, and learned that Lahaina once teemed with pious whalers and drunken Christian missionaries. (Yikes, did I confuse that?). Today, it teems with tourists. Lahaina has interesting historical sites, such as its Old Courthouse and ancient banyan tree, but many tourists flock to the shops and restaurants, including Fleetwood’s, owned by drummer/bandleader Mick Fleetwood.

Mai Tai 2

Lynn with Mai Tai at luau. Those lei blossoms ain’t fake!

Lynn and I attended the Old Lahaina Luau, which offered a pig roast, Hawai’ian band, buffet with 30 native dishes, unlimited bar drinks, and lavish hula show-cum-Hawai’ian history lesson. (The lesson was a very compressed song and dance version of the book I spent two months reading.)

Justly famous is the “Road to Hana,” a narrow, looping road that weaves along the windward North Shore between trendy Pa’ia, and sleepy, isolated Hana. Along this route are dense bamboo groves, hidden waterfalls, “lava tubes” (black lava-rock caverns and tunnels), roadside stands of fresh local fruits and coconut ice cream, and stunning views of the lush coastline and broad, blue Pacific (see header photo, which shows Wai’anapanapa State Park along the Road).

Beyond Hana, along the southern shore of Maui, the narrow road becomes even more treacherous…but the scenery is even more stunning. This part of the island is sparsely populated and prized by locals for its “Old Maui” character. To the right is the “rear” side of Haleakala ridge, whose ribboned, brown slopes and buttery pastures reminded me of Wyoming. To the left is a sprawling plain of cobalt water against turquoise sky, rimmed by jagged ebony rock and the ocean’s white foam. I rounded the southwest bend just as a brilliant sun was dipping over unpeopled Kaho’olawe Island.

Near Kaupo

Back side of Haleakala, west of Kaupo

Lynn gave me permission to hike alone into the erosive valleys of Haleakala Volcano. Here, I met Gabriel (from Québec) and Peggy and Tom (from Michigan), and we did a 12-mile odyssey above the clouds, between volcanic cones and across sprawling cinder deserts. Near 10,000 feet, this “crater” is supposedly one of the quietest places on earth. Camping is allowed in designated areas, but an advance permit is required. (Note to Lynn: my next hike here will be a solo overnighter. Don’t worry, no bears.)

Along with Haleakala, another impressive Maui geologic formation is the ‘Iao Needle. It’s a green, spire-like lava mountain in rain-forested West Maui. Here, King Kamehameha I from the Big Island prevailed over Maui defenders in a bloody 1790 battle, ultimately uniting and ruling all the islands.

Inside Haleakala

Moon-like interior of Haleakala crater

On our last night, we visited intimate McCoy Studio Theater in Kahului to see Pat Simmons². Simmons is guitarist and founding member of the Doobie Brothers. He performed with latter-day Doobie John McFee and son Pat Jr., who grew up on Maui. I must say, Junior is a darn talented singer and writer. But the highlights for us were the Doobie classics “Black Water” (a No. 1 hit from 1975, written by Simmons), “Jesus is Just Alright,” “South City Midnight Lady,” “Long Train Runnin’,” and the rousing encore “Listen to the Music,” where all were joined by surprise guest and fellow Maui resident Dave Mason (of Traffic and solo fame). ‘Twas a good time, and nice to mingle with our own species (old fuckers who dig great music).

'Iao Valley portrait

Me and ‘Iao Needle

Other highlights of our vacation included famous Mama’s Fishhouse restaurant in Pa’ia (thanks to the gift certificate from Holly and husband Mike); snorkeling with green sea turtles and parrotfish; visiting Charles Lindbergh’s lonely gravesite at isolated Kipahulu; the tropical plantation tour, where we learned about Hawai’ian fruit and flora; observing migrating, spouting humpback whales off Papawai Point; admiring the surfers at Ho’okipa and Kamaha Beaches, and where I took a clumsy windsurf lesson; and my Maui mentor, Don, who hawked his cowry shells every day from 11 to 2:30 at Kamaole II Beach. Lastly…I reveled in no TV or internet for two weeks! (Yes, folks, it is doable.)

palm tree

I’ll close with my short take on Aloha. Whereas Hawai’i is a politically “blue” state (i.e. Democrat)—partly due to the international flavor, and also a deep regard for the land—most of the news stories I read in local papers concerned local issues, not national. The only political bumper sticker I saw our entire stay was on one of two cars that had non-Hawai’i plates! However, I did see a few stickers that said, “Practice Aloha.”

Simmons

Pat Simmons and son (photo: Maui Arts and Cultural Center)

So, what is Aloha? I once thought it meant “Hello” or “Goodbye.” It’s a salutation, true, but it’s also a spirit, a cultural trait, and a way of life. It can mean “Welcome,” “Peace,” “Take it easy,” “Don’t worry,” “Be kind,” “Show compassion,” “Enjoy life,” “Share love,” and all of it is rolled into one lovely word. It’s a trait that distinguishes Hawai’i from every other state in the union. (I’ve now visited every state except Alaska.) It helps bring native Hawai’ians and others together in a sense of ohana (family). Spoken aloud, the word is always accompanied by a smile, and the combination of soft vowels and consonants give it a warmth and sexiness like no other word. Try saying it: Aloooohaaaa.  Do you feel better?

Here are a few anecdotes about the Aloha spirit:

  • The cop in Hana. Our rental car was at an angle on the roadside, with the hazard lights blinking, because I wanted to snap a picture of a cute little church. Two police cruisers pulled out from a side street. The first cop slowly passed by, barely noticing me. The second cop rolled down his window. I averted my head, and expected him to ask if something was wrong, or tell me to move on. Instead, he simply said “Hi.” Yeah, you heard right. A cop who said “Hi.”

Don the Beachcomer and cowry shells

Don (the Beachcomber), who fled Oxnard, CA for Maui to “sell seashells by the seashore.”  Don had Aloha.

  • The traffic near Pukalani. I was at a red light, and I used the opportunity to prepare my camera for Haleakala. After a few moments, I glanced up and noticed the light was green, and the car in front was 50 yards ahead. But nobody behind me had honked! My Lonely Planet guidebook claimed that honking in Hawai’i is considered impolite, though I didn’t believe it until the Pukalani stoplight.
  • The rental car employee at the airport. We were feeling down because our vacation was over. Time to fly home to chilly, grey, billboard-infested Ohio. We’d already changed into drab mainland clothes. Fumbling with our bulky baggage while digging for paperwork, we realized we were holding up things. Lynn apologized to the Alamo guy. Smiling the whole time, he said “Hey, take as long as you need! You’re still on island time!” We smiled back.

gary the gecko 3

“Gary the Gecko” joined us one morning on our back patio. Gary had Aloha, too.

I’m not naïve enough to think the Aloha spirit is foolproof. I’m sure there are exceptions. And Hawai’i hasn’t totally turned my personality from Tabasco sauce to pineapple juice. I was on vacation, and feeling good, so sweet-Pete may have been temporary. But after two weeks, it was obvious that Hawai’ians walk the Aloha talk, much more than U.S. mainlanders, and it felt like Aloha was starting to seep into me.

I was just joking about the GoFundMe page. But retirement in Hawai’i? Book it, Dan-O.

Until then, Mahalo (thank you), Maui, for a sweet vacation.

Sunset from Kamaole 2

Sunset from Kamaole, Maui.  The land formation to the left is protected Kaho’olawe Island.

jack lord

“Dan-O, see what you can find on funding their move here. Names, numbers, locations… I want every lead investigated.”
“Sure thing, Steve.”